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The Wearable Robotics Association, an organization for entrepreneurs, businesses and academic professionals involved in the wearable robotics industry, held its first conference, WearRACon 16, in Phoenix last weekend. Although there were many exhibits and demonstrations of innovative “powered human aid devices,” one of the most dramatic was an Ekso Bionics exoskeleton that enables a person with a spinal cord injury to stand up and walk – illustrating the inevitability of wearable robotics as an expanding component of rehabilitative medicine.

Associate Professor Thomas Sugar, Ph.D., from the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering College of Technology and Innovation, cofounded the Wearable Robotics Association last year with FITT Scientific’s COO Joseph Hitt, Ph.D., to help small businesses, academia, and larger companies meet in a forum to the grow the industry.

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“We believe these systems will transform human capabilities by helping people to walk, supporting physical rehabilitation programs, and assisting workers in the manufacturing environment,” Sugar says. “There are many systems in development for the military, as well as devices for the commercial market — such as exoskeletons that help people hike who otherwise would not be able,” Sugar said.

With more than 160 participants from across the U.S., Europe and Asia, Sugar’s vision for the first convention exceeded expectations. “We had demonstrations from wearable robotics companies including Cyberdyne, Ekso Bionics, Laevo and Spring Active,” he said.

According to Hitt, the conference is only one component of the Association’s strategy, which also includes participating in regulatory development, identifying industry standards, and connecting innovators and funders to create holistic solutions to a wide range of human-robotic applications.

Sugar, whose research is in the areas of mobile robot navigation and wearable, rehabilitation robotics for stroke survivors, said the presentations were inspiring. In addition to Ekso’s spinal cord presentation, B-TEMIA demonstrated a knee exoskeleton, Laevo brought a back brace, and SpringActive exhibited a hip exoskeleton.

The event’s keynote speaker was Geoffrey Ling, M.D., Ph.D., and former director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Biological Technologies Office. Ling, who oversaw the development of the first two FDA-approved prosthetic arms during his tenure at the BTO, gave what Sugar described as a “passionate talk on transforming the human experience with robots.”

With nearly 40 corporations and universities represented at this year’s conference, Sugar believes WearRACon 17, slated for next March in Phoenix, will have an even greater impact on the wearable robotics industry.

Cronkite News also covered the event.

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